The Magic of Mud: How Nature Promotes Non-Gendered Play

It was a beautiful sunny spring day with not a cloud in sight, but half of my class showed up to school on a recent Friday in rain boots. No, they had not been misled by the weather forecast: they were mud-puddle ready.

One of the best features of our outdoor classroom in the Presidio National Park is that every winter, after a few heavy rainstorms, a giant, muddy swamp forms in one corner. The water typically gets up to the kids’ knees during the height of the wet season, and it stays terrifically muddy well into the spring. Hence the rain boots on the otherwise warm and sunny day.

For more fun with water, try Lesson 16: Fort Building. 

On a typical afternoon, the activity of choice for the swamp area is to splash and stomp around, seeing how high you can wade before you get water inside your shoes. Some children also enjoy poking sticks in the mud to see what lurks beneath. But on this particular Friday, a new activity emerged: submerging hands (and, in a few cases, arms) in the mud, then chasing other non-muddied children (mostly girls) who feigned horror at the idea of getting mud on themselves.

Learn how to prepare for a messy day in nature: Your Outdoor Education Day Pack

The original mud-bathers was a group of boys. A cluster of girls stood by, watching closely but staying a safe distance away from the mud. Shrieks of “ew!” and “gross!” were heard at regular intervals. And then one of the girls broke from the pack, walked into the swamp, and dipped her hands right into the muck. “This feels so good!” she called back to her friends. They exchanged looks with each other, equal parts shocked and amazed at the boldness of their fellow female. Mere seconds later, the whole group was elbows-deep in the mud, laughing uproariously and chasing after all their classmates. So quickly had this activity transformed from a “boys only” game with the boys pitting themselves against the girls, to one where gender was inconsequential and the jubilation of the experience overshadowed any previous notions of how boys and girls “should” play.

Although this was certainly not the first example of how nature play breaks down gender barriers and stereotypes, it was striking to me how visceral and visual it was. The very act of being in and with nature seems to empower children to act more freely and without the hangups and encumbrances they grapple with in the classroom and on the school yard. Girls who would never join the boys-only soccer game at school are happy to build a dam in the river with a co-ed group of children. Boys who insist that the only acceptable recess activity is playing tag will be the first to initiate a game of “family” in the forest. Nature makes children freer and allows them to bring their full, authentic selves to the proverbial table. For this, I am grateful.

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